'Ordinary People' Learn What Happens To Marriage In Midlife
Diana Evans' new novel is about two couples who — as John Legend sang — are "right in the thick of love."
Evans took her title, Ordinary People, from Legend's song. The whole album Get Lifted, she says, "is very narrative" as it tells the story of "what can happen in a long-term relationship."
Evans follows two sets of friends — 30-something Londoners — as they navigate friendship, relationships and parenthood during pivotal moments of the early 2000s.
"I wanted to write in particular about motherhood," she explains, because "it had such a huge impact on my life" — but it took her a while to build up the courage.
On overcoming her fear of writing about marriage and motherhood
I think for many women motherhood is a huge identity change, so I wanted to dissect that and really examine that. I was inspired very much by the novels of John Updike and Richard Yates — who also dissect marriage and parenthood and long-term relationships — but they do it in a way that I found was very male. And I wanted to write about the female side of that experience ... I wanted to kind of equalize that story.
I think there's a lot of shame around writing about motherhood. ... I think female writers ... when they write about motherhood, or write about very personal subjects like love and relationships and things that aren't necessarily seen as sociological issues or political issues, they are often dismissed as "domestic" writers. It's sort of often seen as writing that doesn't have a huge social importance ... that possibly you're not contributing something "worthwhile" in terms of the themes in literature.
On the disenchanted couples at the heart of her story
The main couple is Melissa and Michael who've been together for 13 years and they live in London, south of the river, and they're at a point in their relationship where they've just had their second child and there's a distance developing between them that they're trying to negotiate. The other couple is Stephanie and Damian who have also been together for a long time and they have three children. ... Damian begins to develop this kind of infatuation with Melissa which has more to do with his own dissatisfaction with his life than an actual real attraction.
On the challenge of long-term relationships
I think the real challenge of marriage or a long-term relationship is trying to appreciate the wonderful things about it. That sense of human understanding and sort of compassion and home — a sense of home that is always there and is always accessible to you. But there is also this other side to it that is very full of doubts about whether you're missing what's on the other side of the fence. I think some of us are better at dealing with it than others ... people come from different backgrounds and that has an impact on how they perform in relationships.
On bracketing the novel with two events — the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the death of Michael Jackson 2009
I tend to use cultural moments and iconography in my fiction as a way of grounding it in reality. Tolstoy also has something to do with it because I was quite influenced by War and Peace which opens with a party which is set in a particular political moment. And he uses that moment to open a window into a particular community that he was trying to depict ... the Russian aristocracy.
In my case, I was trying to depict the black, British middle class ... that's something that we don't really see much of. And I wanted to make that visible and to normalize my experience and the kind of lives that I know. ... I think there's been lots of focus on the negative aspects of blackness. And I wanted ... to write about very ordinary moments and very sort of poignant existential moments about human experience and human identity.
On exploring race in the book without having it as a central focus
The central part of the book is the marriage and the relationships, but I think as a black writer ... whatever I write about is infused with race because ... you can't really get away from it, you can't de-clothe yourself of race. But I think having said that, race shouldn't be something that black writers only are expected to dissect or are expected to carry. It's something that we should all carry.
Samantha Balaban and Caitlyn Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
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